Christmas – The Characters

Check out the podcast here.

mangerWe are all familiar with the Christmas story, maybe too familiar. In our over saturation of Christmas, the meaning of the message sometimes gets lost because of the season. It doesn’t make sense, but we see it over and over again. Sometimes when we’ve heard a story over and over through the years we get a little distracted because we think of it as a review. We don’t really listen because we know where it’s going because we’ve heard it before. In a Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown exclaims, “Doesn’t anyone know what Christmas is all about?” We then hear Linus reciting Lu. 2:8-14 and he concludes by saying, “That’s what Christmas is all about.” Every year we hear preachers preach Christmas sermons, but do we really know the Christmas story? This Christmas, we’re going to take the time to walk through Luke’s telling of the birth of Christ. I encourage you to take the time to read it at home too.

I really encourage you to take the time to read Luke 2:1-20 for yourself.

Here’s the overview. When you study the Bible, you need to take a view from above. Too often, people want to get right into it and find all the answers they seek, but are not willing to do the work necessary to get it. Shortcuts may be awesome for computers or other electronic devices, but there are no shortcuts in understanding the Bible. When people take shortcuts in life, it rarely results in good things. Sarai tried a shortcut in Gen. 16 when she helped God make Abram a great nation. It didn’t work. Satan tempted Jesus in Matt. 4 to take three shortcuts. Satan came to Him when He was tired and hungry. He offered Jesus immediate satisfaction: fresh bread, a miraculous delivery by jumping from the Temple’s pinnacle, and then promised to give Jesus the kingdoms of the world. That was at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Satan was trying to get Jesus to bypass the heartache, pain, and suffering that He was destined to endure. You can’t watch A Charlie Brown Christmas to get an understanding of Christmas.

There are several characters introduced to us by Luke. Many of us can name the players. Mary and Joseph and the inn keeper. Of course, there is baby Jesus.    There is the angel of the Lord and the shepherds. There is the multitude of the heavenly host.  So let’s look at these people. Mary is a very holy figure to some people, but what do we learn about her from this passage? Mary was with Joseph. They were traveling from Galilee to the City of David which is called Bethlehem. They were traveling because of the decree sent out from Caesar Augustus that said a census was to be taken. The census applied to men so they could be taxed by the Roman government. The number of people to be counted included, “all that inhabited the earth.”  In order to do that, everyone had to go to their hometown to register. The phrase City of David is used 45 times in the Old Testament and it refers to Jerusalem. It’s used twice in the New Testament and it refers to Bethlehem. Joseph was of the house of David and David was born in Bethlehem. Mary has a very unique condition that never occurred before or after. It wasn’t just that she was with child. We find out how Mary finds herself pregnant in Luke 1:26-35. That’s pretty exciting stuff. And then in Matt. 1:25 says Joseph, “Kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” By any account, the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem would have been very difficult even in ideal conditions. The conditions that Mary and Joseph found themselves in was anything but ideal. Given Mary’s condition, they likely would have walked the easier of the routes. It was about 90 miles from Galilee to Bethlehem. Think about how fast you can walk. Now think about walking on unpaved paths, carrying your gear, with a pregnant woman. They could have walked about 20 miles a day so the journey would take them four or five days. Have you ever thought about where they stayed each night? Did they camp or stay at inns along the way? When they finally arrived at their destination, imagine how they felt. Tired, hungry, dirty, smelly. All they wanted to do was find a room, get a bite to eat, and go to bed. Although the text doesn’t say anything about how they were feeling, think about how you feel after a long trip.

After they arrive in Bethlehem, “The days were completed for her to give birth.” We don’t know how long they were in Bethlehem before she went into labor. That’s one of the nice tidbits we put in the story. They got there just in time for Mary to start the delivery process. Perhaps all the walking helped Mary go into labor. Wait Pastor Ian, God orchestrated all of this to ensure the prophecy of Micah 5:2 was met. “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” No one can choose to be born and certainly cannot choose where they are to be born. Luke very casually says, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Lu. 2:7) Did you know that the first gender reveal party ever held was for Jesus? Gen. 3:15 tells us, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” We quickly gloss over the first part of that verse in Luke and focus on the second part. Before He was laid in the manger, have you thought about the actual birth? With our modern medicine and technology, you really don’t even have to wait until it’s time. When the doctor feels as though the baby is ready or a certain number of weeks has passed, a woman can be induced into labor. No more inconvenient middle of the night births. Babies can now be born to fit into a more convenient time. For many women, gone are the days of waiting until the baby determines it’s time to make an entry.

This must have been a challenging birth. Notice Jesus was Mary’s firstborn giving insight that there would be other children. This birth was free from the numerous choices available today that can sometimes complicate the process. There was no talk of medication for Mary. There were no birthing suites and no swimming pool births. Luke doesn’t go into any details of the birth. How long was she in labor? Today when women choose natural child birth, it’s nowhere in the same ball park as what Mary endured. There’s typically someone close by that can help. A mid-wife, a doula, or mom. If something goes wrong today for someone that chooses natural child, EMTs and paramedics are only a phone call away. Not in our story. One minute Mary was pregnant, and the next minute she was wrapping Jesus in those swaddling cloths. I think this is interesting given that Luke, a doctor who desired to write with significant detail, left this part of the story out.

The picture portrayed in our modern day nativities do not accurately portray the scene. The beautiful pictures of the little manger is nothing close to reality. The manger or feeding trough is nothing more than a box or platform that was used to feed animals. I want you to picture this because it’s important to understand what God was willing to do to offer us redemption through this little human. If you have pets, think about what their food dishes look like. Hair, slobber, nose juice, bugs, and all sorts of unseen germs, and bacteria are around the dish. Into that environment was laid our Savior. I’m sure Joseph did the best he could with what he had. He probably scraped together the cleanest hay he could find. If he had a coat or covering, he probably laid it down. And Jesus was placed in the manger where we assume he gently drifted off to sleep without making a single noise.

I’m going to leave Jesus in the manger with Mary and Joseph watching over Him. Next week we’ll see how the other characters in the story responded to the birth of Jesus. Stay tuned as we continue to take a different look at this very familiar story.

Advertisements

The Savior’s Sign

Virgin BirthYou can listen to the podcast for this message here.

He is considered one of the greatest men of God from the olden days. He was a counselor to kings and a writer whose O.T. book is quoted more often in the New Testament than any other except the book of Psalms. When Jesus preached His first sermon, He preached out of a passage from this man’s writings. His calling from God is one of the most beautiful pictures in Scripture. “In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.’ And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.” (Is. 6:1-4) This man would be inspired to say things about the Lord so incredible that it boggles our mind. is name is Isaiah and he is a prophet.

Isaiah 7:10-17 is a familiar passage to people in and out of the church and I encourage you to get your Bible and read this incredible passage for yourself.

You’ve heard the saying, desperate times call for desperate measures? This passage comes just after Isaiah answers the call of God in 6:1-4. Isaiah finds himself right in the middle of some pretty intense political action. Isaiah 7:1-2 sets the stage for us. At some point in our lives, every one of us will face desperate times. Circumstances present themselves that may bring us to the edge of despair where there seem to be few options and time is running out. In this passage I want you so see some things that put Judah’s king Ahaz on the edge of despair. Ahaz was an unstable man. He had a godly father and grandfather, but he did not follow in their footsteps. Having godly relatives is no guarantee of godly children. Unless a child personally chooses to enter into a biblical relationship with God through Christ, he will leave that home one day without the tools necessary to face the world.

I don’t know everything about Ahaz, but this much is clear. His life can be summed up as recorded in 2 Kings 16:2, “Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem; and he did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD his God, as his father David had done.” He is not in a wilderness period and he is not sowing his wild oats. He did not do what is right in God’s eyes. Ahaz is probably in his early twenties and he is confronted with a very serious national crisis, but he doesn’t possess the life experience or spiritual resources necessary to effectively handle it. To make a really long story short, Assyria and the northern kingdom of Israel joined forces to invade the southern kingdom of Judah. Against the guidance of God’s prophets, Israel formed an alliance with Assyria in an effort to defend against what they knew was coming from Assyria. It was a, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em scenario. It was Assyria’s practice to invade and conquer neighboring countries and take the people prisoner. Assyria’s  goal was to invade Judah and get rid of king Ahaz. Verse 2 tells us “His heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind.” So what’s a king to do? Godly kings seek wise counsel from God and then there is Ahaz. Ahaz was foolish. 2 Kings 17 indicate that Ahaz is going to try and form his own alliance independent of Assyria and Israel only his alliance won’t be against Assyria, it would be with Assyria. Ahaz is planning to buy off Assyria to save himself. You can feel the desperation in Ahaz’s reasoning. So it is with this information that we find the prophet Isaiah called to go talk to king Ahaz in 7:3. Let’s see how this is set up in 7:3-9.

The actual reality is that God always comes through. How many times has God used seemingly incidental things to remind us that He is right there? He is involved in our lives even if we can’t see exactly what He is doing. Here is Ahaz looking over the water supply lines of Judah. Isaiah and his son Shear-jashub walk up to Ahaz. Hebrew names carried a lot of significance. Isaiah means Jehovah has saved. Shear-jashub means a remnant shall return. Standing right in front of Ahaz are reminders of who God is and that He will preserve His people. Remember that Ahaz’s father and grandfather were godly men. God is always bigger than your problems and your fears. In the face of certain defeat, look at what God says through Isaiah in v. 4, “Take care and be calm, have no fear and do not be fainthearted.” God is saying don’t look for a way out, but look for a way through your difficult situation. 1 Cor. 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” Do you believe that no situation is too hard for God? For Ahaz, God was trying to show him that his trust must be placed in the One that can handle the problem. V. 9 says, “If you will not believe, you surely shall not last.” Faith, that strong conviction in what you cannot see often stands in the way of God accomplishing what He wants to accomplish. If you do not stand firm, you will fall. God was trying to get Ahaz to believe. To walk by faith, not by sight. To be a follower of God first, then a king.

This is a good time for a miracle. It is at this moment that something incredible takes place. Vs. 10-11 says, “Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz saying, ‘Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’” Isaiah was there to speak to the king on behalf of God and Ahaz doesn’t want to listen; all he can think about is the Assyrian army. Ask whatever you want – no limit. “I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD.” Now Ahaz gets all spiritual on Isaiah. He is conveniently forgetting what is going on in Judah: idolatry, human sacrifices, asheroth pole worship, Baal worship. The reality is that Ahaz had already made up his mind and nothing Isaiah said or did would convince him to trust God. Are we like that? Do we seek guidance and counsel from the Scriptures, or do we avoid it because we’ve already made up our minds as to what we will do.

Here is the moment set apart for Isaiah. He turns from the king and begins to speak to the crowd that had gathered. The story continues in vs. 13-14, “Then he said, “Listen now O house of David! Is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God as well? Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel.” It is God that gives the sign. He doesn’t send an angel or a prophet – God Himself sees to it.

What is the meaning of the sign? This sign is meant to get our attention. V. 13 starts with “Listen now.” Pay attention to what is coming. This sign proves that God can do whatever He wants to do. Sign means a signal or a distinguishing mark. It is something that is obvious, something that will stand out. This sign involves the birth of a son after an impossible pregnancy. A virgin will conceive. Isaiah tells everyone that at some point a woman will conceive a child that simply cannot be explained.  When you see that, that is God’s handiwork. This sign means that God is coming in the flesh. His name is Immanuel meaning God with us. God will be with us in the flesh. He will dwell among us. We will see and experience His glory. 700 hundred years later, that sign was realized. A young woman named Mary was engaged to a guy named Joseph. An angel appeared and told her what to expect. Luke 1:31 records the words of the prophet, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.”

If God can cause a woman to conceive in a miraculous manner, why do you doubt that He can take care of you? The birth of Immanuel, God with us, served as a sign for people desperate to see God working. When all seems hopeless to us, God already has a plan in place, has already set the process in motion. Before you even realized you need Him, He is already there. Sometimes it takes being in the pit of despair to see the hope of a Savior. Immanuel means God with us, not God might be here one day if you’re really good.

Outrageous Love

outrageous-loveYou can listen to the podcast for this message here.

Last week we looked at the myth surrounding Christmas perfection. We saw the nativity not as a neat and tidy occasion, but an occasion filled with anxiety and uncertainty. It was anything but perfect. This morning we’re going to look at an aspect of Christmas few people have likely considered.

Hosea 3:1 says, “Then the LORD said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”

Christmas often is a time when family members from near and far come together to celebrate. We rejoice with one another and talk and have fun. We look forward to spending time with family we haven’t seen in a year or more. When I was a kid, we would travel to my Aunt and Uncle’s house. It was just over a two hour ride and it seemed like forever. We would see my five cousins and talk and ice skate on the lake behind their house and have a great time. We celebrate relationships. We long for those relationships. God created us with a desire for close, intimate relationships. That’s His design. Did you ever send a note to someone else with the question “Do you like me?” Check yes or no. Some people will do anything for a close intimate relationship – even compromising their most fundamental beliefs. When those relationships aren’t present in our lives we wonder, why not? It can lead to conclusions of self doubt. We wonder are we worth it? Will anyone ever love me? Those feelings easily transfer to God. Oh sure, we believe in Him, but does He really love me? We’re good at hiding our flaws and our failings from one another so people will like us and at the same time knowing that we cannot hide them from God. We hear His approaching footsteps, we see Him pursuing us, yet instead of turning to Him, we slink away.

The book of Hosea might seem to be a strange place to be in Scripture for Christmas, but it contains an incredible description of a relationship. Throughout history God has had a love relationship with His people – Israel. Time and time again, Israel ignored that relationship and was unfaithful, committed adultery, harlotry, and idolatry. Of all the people on earth, God had a special covenant relationship with Israel. Why Israel? On a global scale, Israel was small and insignificant. Israel and her people were continuously bullied by her neighbors. God did not choose Israel based on anything they did, on their morality, or their goodness. God relentlessly and passionately pursued Israel.

Hosea 1:2 says, “When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the LORD.” God tells Hosea to marry a woman that no man in his right mind would want to be with. She was a harlot, a prostitute. God often tells us to do things that make no sense. What would you have done? Would you take a spouse guaranteed to be unfaithful? God created us in His own image and uniquely designed us for an exclusive relationship with Him and no other, yet we play the harlot with our consumerism, materialism, and self indulgence. Think about Christmas morning when we celebrate the birthday of Jesus – God with us. Children can’t sleep in the days leading up to Christmas and then on Christmas morning wake up in the pre-dawn hours and drag their weary parents out of bed. The kids rip into the presents one after another as quickly as they can without any thankfulness, without reflection, without any thoughts except give me the next one. We celebrate the birthday of the King by ignoring Him. What God wants is devotion to Him, not just on His Son’s birthday, but each and every day. He wants the outrageous love He has for us to be reciprocated. God’s message to Hosea is clear: “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the sons of Israel.” This is really beyond comprehension, but it’s what God desires. This is the Christmas miracle. Even though we have turned out backs on Him in favor of greed, materialism, idolatry, and selfishness . . . He still actively pursues us!

When we think back to Mary and the silence of that moment, I wonder what she must have been thinking. I’m sure the words of the angel echoes in her ears, “Favored one of God.” Even in the uncertainty and anxiousness of her situation, Mary trusted. Lu. 1:46-49 is known as Mary’s song. Listen to how she responds to this uncertainty. “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name.” It didn’t matter what the community thought about her; it didn’t matter what they said. Mary knew the truth and she decided to trust in the promises of God. God promised to love you and never leave you regardless of the garbage in your life. Do you trust Him?

These are difficult times. Our country continues to decline in morality. Our leaders continue to depart from clear biblical teaching. Our churches are morphing into godless masses where anything goes in order that we don’t come across intolerant or judgmental. The money we earn doesn’t go as far as it used to and we are left wondering how we will make the ends meet. Maybe you’re facing illness and don’t have the opportunity for healthcare. Maybe your children are wandering from God. Maybe it’s just the grind of everyday life that pushes you off the path of earnestly pursuing God. Perhaps it’s difficult for you to comprehend the angel’s message to you, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (Lu. 1:28) Will you choose to believe the truth of this greeting or will you believe the lie of our enemy that says, “You’re not worth it.” You’re too far gone for God to love you. We must turn to the standard of truth and recognize that the Bible is filled with people like you and me that mess up. Even in our mess ups, God relentlessly pursues us. In spite of ourselves, God runs after us.

How can you be outrageous in your love? I’ve often said the most dangerous type of person is one that professes to know Christ, but lives their lives in contradiction to the Scriptures. They say they love God, but they worship at the altar of personal desire and personal will. It is only after we realize where we are in relation to perfection that we can begin to see where God wants to take us. When Mary found herself in an incredibly difficult position, she went to talk with someone she trusted. I’m sure she was nervous. Have you ever had to tell someone something extraordinarily difficult? I’m sure there were butterflies in her stomach as she approached Elizabeth. “And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lu. 1:42) I wonder if this was the response she was expecting. This was a miracle of God and I wonder how many miracles are squashed because of the negativity of our family and friends. What if Mary had bowed to the peer pressure and failed to carry the miracle of God full term? We need people around us that will help us carry the miracles of God, to encourage us to keep going in the face of adversity; people that will hold us accountable. That’s why I believe our Community Groups are so important. When we are connected to others, it’s easier to understand and trust in the power of God when we see Him transforming other’s lives.

For Hosea, we don’t know if his wife Gomer ever gave up her adulterous lifestyle. All we know is that Hosea bought her back for 15 shekels of some silver and a homer and a half of barley. The hope that Hosea had was reflected in 3:5: “Afterward the sons of Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the LORD and to His goodness in the last days.” When forgiveness is offered, wandering people come back. God offers us mercy and grace even though we don’t deserve it. That’s the outrageous love of God through the Christmas miracle of Jesus Christ. That’s the kind of love we’re supposed to have for others.

Think about the most important relationship you have with someone. With your spouse or your parents, children, or friends. If these are just an inkling of God’s love for you, how outrageous must God’s love be for you?

Christmas Perfection

Check out the podcast here.

Last week we were reminded that Immanuel is God with us. We were challenged to tear down the idolatry of commercialism and consumerism and to expect a miracle. This morning we’ll get a reality check as we seek out perfection at Christmas.

The great gospel of Luke 1:30-31, 34 says, “The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’”

In the classic Christmas movie “Jingle all the Way”, Howard Langston attempted to make the season just right for his son. Howard, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a procrastinator and tended to put his job ahead of his family. All his son Jaime wanted for Christmas was the Turbo Man action figure and Howard promised him there would be one under the tree. Turbo Man was the hottest gift of the year and every kid wanted one too. Of course it was Christmas Eve before Howard thought about the gift. Howard was trying to make Christmas perfect for his son. To make things worse, his neighbor Tim played by Phil Hartman looked like he had planned for the perfect Christmas. He had a picturesque house filled with decorations and all the presents neatly wrapped beneath the tree. The search for that perfect gift – that perfect Christmas – led to a frenzied search mission to find Turbo Man that included fights, deception, theft, burglary, racketeering, assault, police obstruction, as well as numerous violations of traffic laws. And of course, what Christmas movie would be complete without the perfect neighbor making a play for our main character’s wife? Howard tried to make Christmas perfect, but the reality is there is no such thing. For many people, Christmas is a reminder of heartache, tragedy, and suffering. Clever marketing and Victorian Christmas traditions have replaced the biblical principle of Immanuel – God with us.

Today we have a sanitized nativity scene. Our nativity scenes often portray the parents lovingly looking down over the holy Child lying in a hay lined cradle, not a manger. In our pursuit of the perfect Christmas, we forget that Mary and Joseph were spending the night in barn – a place where animals live. Where there are animals, there’s poop. Where there’s poop, there’s insects, and smell. There was no medical treatment available and Joseph was the only support Mary had and if he’s like most of us first time dads, he didn’t have a single clue. We want this clean, picture perfect nativity with no complications, no heartache, and no trouble. We have this idea that if we sincerely love God then He will grant us serenity now. No fuss, no muss in our dainty, clean, sanitized, Christian lives.

Luke tells us it was anything but perfect, anything but simple. Lu. 1:26 tells us it was the sixth month of Mary’s pregnancy before any answer to her dilemma was made evident. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel tells her in Lu. 1:30. Easy for the angel to say. Mary faces an unwanted teen pregnancy. This was different from pregnancies today. She had never been with a man. It’s easier for us to understand because we know how it ends. How easy would it have been for her parents? Joseph? The town’s people? Put yourself in Mary’s shoes; she knew the truth that no one else knew. The angel says, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” This is where it starts for all of us. We are favored because of God’s great love; His unconditional sacrificial love. This is where Christmas begins. Not just that Christ came, but that He is still here.

Mary was favored, not perfect. It’s hard for us to comprehend unconditional love. God wants a relationship with you even if you’ve been naughty or nice. Why? Because you are highly favored. It’s easy to understand when you consider your children. You favor your kids over someone else’s kids simply because they’re yours. It doesn’t have to do with their abilities, or their aptitude, or what they look like. You favor them because they’re yours. It’s the same way with God. The favor He shows you is because of Him, not you. Being favored does not mean bad things won’t happen. Look at Mary again. As far as relationships, she had done right; had kept herself pure and she finds herself with child. Interestingly enough, nothing is mentioned of Mary’s righteousness. Even after the angel’s explanation, Mary is left asking, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lu. 1:34) I’m pretty certain the theological implications of the baby she carried were not fully realized for some time. How many of us have been in similar situations of uncertainty where we are called on to exercise our faith? You have done all you can to remain true and pure and faithful to God and then that suddenly hits.

Think about Mary’s emotional frame of mind. God’s favor would bring a significant measure of pain and suffering to her life. We read about this miracle of life knowing that the stone was rolled away and the tomb was found empty. We look at this event through the sanitized lens of knowledge. Mary didn’t have the luxury of knowing. She shares the story with her fiancé who would obviously put her away certain she is lying after all; he had never seen or heard of any virgin becoming pregnant. She faces death by stoning for the sin of adultery. The walk of faith provides no guarantees for a neat and orderly life free from life’s suddenlies. Nowhere in Scripture does it say everything that happens to us will make sense. As a result of Jesus’ birth, King Herod ordered the execution of all male babies under two. Hebrews 11 is known as the hall of faith. Stories of great faith abound in this chapter.      What are the results of this great faith? Abel was murdered. Noah suffered 120 years of ridicule and the earth was destroyed by a flood. Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his only son. In fact, I encourage you to take the time and read Heb 11:35-12:2. How about Paul? Surely he escaped problems. Look at 2 Cor. 11:24-27 and you’ll see what he endured for the cause of Christ. Paul warned Timothy that even a desire to live godly will bring persecution. (2 Tim. 3:12)

Do any of us really count the cost of an authentic relationship with Christ when we choose Him? In his book The Present Future Reggie McNeal concluded that, “church culture in North America is now a vestige of the original movement, an institutional expression of religion that is in part a civil religion and in part a club where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics, worldview, and lifestyle match theirs.” We have rewritten the original Christmas story of pain, suffering, and loneliness to one of unrealistic perfection with a hint of cinnamon and ginger. Mary asked, “How can this be?” The angel provides the answer in Lu. 1:35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” After that triumphant declaration – silence. No bells and whistles, no warm gooey feeling, just silence. In that silence, I wonder if doubt crept in? We can face the same thing. The Holy Spirit is with you always and particularly in life’s suddenly moments.

When we seek perfection where it does not exist, we’ll be left feeling empty and unfulfilled. We want a “G” rated Christian life in an “R” rated world. Why did God choose Mary? Look at what she said in 1:38, “And Mary said, ‘Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.” When faced with this seemingly impossible situation, Mary chose to trust and obey. May it be the same for us.

Expect a Miracle

You can listen to the podcast here.

And so it is Christmas. We begin our Christmas series for this year. Every year seems Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier. American retailers capitalize on our materialism, our over spending, our overeating, and our overwhelming urge for self indulgence. I hope it will be a Christmas like no other for you and your family as we cut through all the distractions of the season.

Is. 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” What does God look like?

We know from Genesis that we are created in His image. We know he has hands and he hears and sees. Would we know God if He walked in or when He showed up? Over the years artists have sculpted God, have painted God, have drawn images of what they think God looks like. Would we recognize God or would be like people in the old west that asked, “Who was that masked man?” Centuries before the Messiah came, prophets proclaimed, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” (Is. 9:6-7) This soon coming king would suffer, would be rejected by his own people; He would know heartache and pain. This King would hang out with the ones society deemed low class and poor. People had been told about this King and they had different expectations about what he would look like, what he would act like, what he would be like. Some thought this king would be a political leader that would turn the world upside down; someone that would return the world to the time of King David.

When we talk to loved ones or friends on the phone, you have the mental picture of what they look like. When you pray, what mental picture of God do you formulate? Is it the condemning judge that sits on His mighty throne waiting to drop the hammer on you? Is He like that parent that never says no? That never provides guidance or discipline that lets you do whatever you like? Is He a God that rewards obedience with material wealth or physical health? Or is He a God that is present with you regardless of your circumstances? Immanuel – God with us.

When describing God we use adjectives like all-mighty, all powerful, majestic, consuming, liberating, rich, and infinite. And yet, not one of these words would describe Jesus. Jesus was not at all what people expected. His life is a contradiction of worldly values and ideals. He was not born in power in strength, but in weakness. He was born to a poor family in a poor town filled with marginalized people. He spent his early years as a refugee in Africa where He escaped political genocide. He spent his childhood in a blue-collar, working class family. As He grew into a man, he faced opposition from religious leaders. He resisted the world’s obsession with money, power, and recognition. He had compassion and empathy for the weak, the orphans, and the destitute of society. What does God look like? He looks like Jesus – God with us!

Is this today’s Jesus? We often view Jesus as the genie in the bottle. He exists to grant our every wish. We have redefined Jesus into our own image who promises to give us everything we want. He has become an idol of consumption, materialism, and self indulgence. He has become Santa Claus Jesus. We know the familiar song . . . He knows when you are sleeping, he knows if you’d been good or bad. In this same way, we have reduced God to a heavenly watchdog that judges what we do or don’t do and then grants punishment or reward. This is not the God we see in Jesus. He doesn’t come bearing gifts to give to good boys and girls. God’s gift of Jesus cannot be neatly wrapped in a box with a pretty bow on it. If you’re picture of God is distorted, your view of life will be distorted. We have this commercialized idea of Jesus as the magical gift giver sent from above and as a result, we have certain expectations for Christmas, but Jesus doesn’t do magic. Magic is trickery, sleight of hand, it’s an illusion, it’s for our entertainment; our enjoyment not for our transformation. God doesn’t do magic; He does miracles. That magical, wonderful, ideal, storybook Christmas is unattainable. We get all the new and improved decorations, holiday recipes, and latest gifts to create a warm, fuzzy experience and we’re left wanting. The fuzzy feelings pass and we’re left exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmed at the shopping, spending, school programs, cooking, entertaining, and wrapping of gifts we don’t need or will never use. In the hustle and bustle of the holiday festivities, we miss Immanuel – the gift of God with us. The idolatry of consumerism is tough to knock down. John Wesley said the wallet is the last thing converted in a person’s life. Jesus said it Himself in Matt. 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Get ready for a miracle. Christmas is the celebration of a miracle. A young girl conceived a child without the participation of a man and yet we push the miracle worker out of the celebration. Merriam Webster defines miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” Every salvation is a miracle of God’s love, of God’s involvement, of God’s desire for an intimate relationship with His ultimate creation. Do you feel like you’re not worth it? In John 7:38 Jesus said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.” The same Holy Spirit that conceived the Miracle that Mary carried within her lives inside of every ordinary believer. Our Messiah was ordinary too. Is. 53:2-3 says of Jesus, “For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” Not quite the leader the world was looking for. He would not have been one of the cool kids at school. He was from the wrong side of the tracks of an insignificant little town where one person asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jo. 1:46) He was ordinary looking, probably plain, nothing that would draw people to Him. That’s the way most of us are yet God chooses to use us, to work in us and work through us.

Scripture is filled with ordinary people that God used in extraordinary ways. Moses was not eloquent in speech and had anger issues. Jonah was disobedient.    David was an adulterer, a conspirator, and a murderer. Peter spoke without thinking. Thomas was a doubter. Paul was a persecutor of Christians, but God had plans for each of them and He has plans for you. “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11) Are you willing to pay the price? The angel greeted Mary and said, “You have found favor with God.” (Lu. 1:30) Mary faced certain rejection, criticism, and ostracism because of her unwed pregnancy. While grace is free, it’s not cheap. It was not culturally acceptable to be pregnant out of wedlock and Mary had to be thinking, “Wow, if this is God’s favor, I don’t want to be on His wrong side.” What about Joseph? I’m sure life was tough for him too. His wife was pregnant and he wasn’t the father.

Jesus came to this earth not just to die sacrificially on our behalf, but also to demonstrate sacrificial living. How far has our modern Christmas diverted from the original Christmas? We want to be warm and fuzzy surrounded by family and friends with the gentle sound of Christmas carols playing softly in the background. Mary and Joseph were alone in a strange place and of that night we sing, “The cattle are lowing the poor Baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Their Christmas was full of poverty and anxiety, not mulled cider, turkey, ham, and peppermint sticks. And let’s not forget the reason Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt was to escape government sanctioned genocide. I’m not sure how Mary and Joseph would describe their memories of Christmas, but it was probably not a silent night where all was calm and all was bright.

Christmas is about the sacrificial gift of Jesus that we want to leave in the manger. But you cannot separate the child in the manger from the message of Christ on the cross. The meaning of life is not found in material possessions or personal comfort. The meaning of Christmas is not found in endless debt and getting gifts not needed. I agree with Paul is saying the meaning of life in found in, “know[ing] Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” (Phil 3:10) Expect God to perform the same miracles in your life that He performed in Mary and Joseph’s lives.

How Nazareth Missed Christmas

You can listen to the podcast here.

Several years ago a fad in Christmas decorations swept across America.  It is an artificial tree that is upside down.  Hammecher Schlemmer offered a 7 foot prelit tree for 599.95.  If you didn’t get one, it’s too late, they no longer offer the tree.  Who wouldn’t want one?  In their ad, the company says there is more room for presents than a traditional tree. You can still find these trees ranging from $200-400. Most people don’t need a tree to be turned upside down at Christmas.

Left unchecked, Christmas can be turned upside down in a hurry. Our gift buying can leave months of extra debt to pay off, our holiday schedules can leave us exhausted, and our materialism can leave someone searching for Christmas blind to the true meaning and spirit of the holiday. Americans will spend almost $22 billion this Christmas on toys alone. We used to talk about cars being upside down and now we’re upside down on our houses. So here’s the question, “Wouldn’t you like to trade your upside down Christmas for something better?” From Nazareth to Bethlehem, there were countless opportunities to celebrate Christmas, but few people managed to do so. In the case of Nazareth, missing Christmas led to something far more troubling because this community managed to miss life-changing faith, even with Jesus living in their midst. As it turns out, in the 12th Century, Christians hung fir trees upside down in their homes at Christmas to remind them of the Trinity. Back to Nazareth. The story started there, when Mary got the word that she would carry the long-awaited Christ child.

Take a look at the familiar passage in Luke 1:26-38.

Mary’s had a dream and in that dream, she found Christmas. It’s not just that the angel of the Lord found her, but it was Mary’s willingness to be used. Mary called herself a bond slave in verse 38. A bond slave is one who gives himself up to another’s will and whose service is used by Christ in extending and advancing His cause among men. It also means someone devoted to another to the point of disregarding your own interests. There was a period of time when Mary was the only person to believe God was at work in a new way. It took a miraculous dream for Joseph to get on board.  Check out Joseph’s dream in Matt. 1:18-24. Mary would spend her pregnancy and her labor away from her village, her friends, and her family. The lesson for us today is more important than you might think. Yes, we’d like to reclaim the rest of the holiday. Yes, we’d like to remember the real reason for the celebration. Yes, we’d like to spend less money on gifts, and realize what an incredible gift God has given to us. But if we miss the meaning of this season of faith, we also might miss the opportunity for experiencing life-changing faith years later. It happened that way in Nazareth.

When Jesus began his teaching ministry, he went back to Nazareth and went to the synagogue. When Jesus delivered the same message that was already being accepted in other villages, the people of Nazareth refused to believe. The story is found in Mark 6:1-6a. Jesus was amazed at their lack of faith. Nazareth had been told through Mary and Joseph that angels were delivering important messages from God, but the people of the village refused to believe. Perhaps they knew Mary and Joseph too well to believe God might be using them. Nazareth had seen evidence of Mary’s pregnancy and evidence of Joseph’s decision to believe a miracle had taken place. Nazareth had access to the Scripture in its synagogue, and had surely read the promise in Is. 7:14 that said “a virgin will be with child” and that he would be called a Nazarene according to Matt. 2:23 where Matthew quotes what the prophets said. Even with the evidence that Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin, that His birth was a miracle, Nazareth refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They were too familiar with Jesus.  He’d grown up among them.  He’d lived among them every day for decades. No one could remember Jesus doing anything wrong. No one could even remember Mary or Joseph getting frustrated with Jesus. They knew Him. Even though miracles were happening in other places because of Jesus, in His hometown, people with diseases, pain, and disabilities returned home lacking the faith necessary to be healed. This faith would have changed their lives and shown them the truth of Christmas.

So what’s the impact of this story? Most of us are as familiar with Jesus as the people of Nazareth. If you’ve been in church very long, you know the stories, you’ve sung the songs, and you’ve even memorized scripture. But there’s still a huge gulf of faith and trust that needs to be bridged and only you can build that bridge. This Christmas, would Jesus be amazed at your faith, or at your lack of faith? Will it be another Christmas filled with too much to do, too much food, and too many expenses? Could this be the Christmas when faith finally grabs hold of you and like Mary you say, “I am the Lord’s servant.”

This is the right time for the right message. What’s the right message? As people are consumed with shopping, decorating, and buying, most of our culture misses the reason for all the activity. His name is Jesus, and He is called Immanuel. Immanuel means God with us. There is no better time of the year than Christmas to share who Jesus is and why He came. It’s not about spending more, it’s about spending less, doing less, and enjoying Christmas more. How can we share the right message, right now? Take a stand and let others take notice that you want to make Christmas what it should be. Relax, take time with God and reflect upon what He did to make it all possible. Make a family tradition of giving a major gift to missions. That’ll make a bigger impact on the world than giving your child the latest gaming system.

It’s the right time for the right message and this is the right place for the right message. Nazareth was not the right place for the home of the Messiah. The character of Nazareth was proverbially bad.  To be a Galilean or a Nazarene was an expression of decided contempt. The village did not have the best reputation. In John 1:46, Nathaniel said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And yet Isaiah promised that the Messiah would be despised, even contemptible. Few people grow up thinking their hometown has the chance to produce greatness. With 820 people living there, Tampico, IL produced Ronald Reagan. John Wayne was born in Winterset, IA – 4805. Andy Griffith was born in Mt. Airy NC – 8484. Dick van Dyke was born in Crawfordsville, IN – 15,243. Tiger Woods was born in Cypress, CA – 49,000. Bush 43 was born in New Haven, CT – 124,000. Tim Tebow was born to missionary parents in Makati City, Philippines, just one kid trying to find his way among the 510,000 people living around him.

Any place, at any time, can produce a great leader or athlete or an unforgettable entertainer. This place, our place, happens to be the right place for the right message of Christmas. Who else is going to bring the Good News to our community? Everyone else is too busy at Christmas. We all need to realize that the best person to reach our family, friends, and neighbors is us. It’s not someone else’s responsibility.  It’s not even someone else’s opportunity. You are there, inside the circle, armed with years of relationships and trust. Find a way to get the message to your sphere influence this year. Include a spiritual side to your family celebrations. Pray before you open gifts. Read the Christmas story from Luke. Think about what your family or community might be like without your contributions. George Bailey had an opportunity to see what his community would be like without his positive influence. You can make a difference.

It’s the right time for the right message.  This is the right place for the right message, and you are the right person for the right message. You may have doubts about your ability to deliver the good news or you may be very comfortable sharing your faith. Each of us, in our own ways, with our own skills, has been gifted and charged by God to deliver the life changing news of Christmas. Mary and Joseph accepted the challenge, trusted God, and found the miracle. They paid a price for accepting the task God gave them. They endured shame and scorn and traveled hundreds of miles. The rest of Nazareth endured none of the discomfort or pain that Mary and Joseph did because they did not accept the challenge of faith. They missed Christmas. What a person does with the right message, given in the right time, at the right place, is completely up to him or her. Life-changing faith – Christmas-finding faith – is the kind of faith that puts your faith in action. The decision belongs to you. Take the journey of faith that Mary and Joseph took, and you’ll find the miracle. If you have a hard time trusting and believing, you’ll suffer the same fate as people in Nazareth who never overcame their lack of faith. If you can trust, if you can come to faith in Christ, then you’ll find the same truth that Mary found as she took one step after another in her walk of faith. Remember the words the angel spoke to Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)

The right place, the right time, the right person and most importantly, the right message. Christmas started in Nazareth, went to Bethlehem, and then back to Nazareth. Both villages were filled with people who missed what God was doing in their midst. It’s the same way people in our culture can celebrate a huge holiday without ever comprehending what God has done, and continues to do, in our midst. And yet God is at work, changing lives one at a time, and getting the message out in some surprising ways. Don’t miss Christmas this year because you’re too caught up in Christmas.

How Bethlehem Missed Christmas

You can catch the podcast here.

It’s possible to miss Christmas even as it happens all around you. The stress of finding the right gifts, wrapping them, and paying for them can mask Christmas so well it might just disappear altogether. It happened to a lot of people that very first Christmas and nowhere was it more obvious than in the little town of Bethlehem that slept right through the most important birth in history. Christmas came to Bethlehem, but almost everyone there missed it. Bethlehem, however, had a good excuse. The people there were overwhelmed with life. An unexpected census caused that little village to be packed with people. The town was not prepared for the extra people. The demands for food, water, and lodging must have stretched the townspeople to the max. To make it worse, many of the people there probably had to be somewhere else to be counted for the census. It looked like a golden financial opportunity, but before it was all over, Bethlehem was overwhelmed with grief.

Take a look at Matthew 2:13-18.

The loss of a child is particularly painful.  In America when a child is abducted, an Amber Alert is posted.  Signs across highways light up to let people know that a child is missing. The truth is that a lot of things can keep you from Christmas, a lot of really normal life-things. Just as it did in Bethlehem, grief can steal the joy of Christmas faster than any other enemy.

God is always at work so we worship Him. The angels’ song was worship at its finest. It considered nothing of the circumstances of earth, but only considered the majesty of God. The angels had a view of God that completely blocked their view of anything on earth, and they sang as if God alone was worthy of praise. They sang as if the glory of God was making a difference in the lives of those who lived on earth. But people on earth were so focused on their circumstances; few of them caught so much as a glimpse of what the angels saw on that first Christmas night. In Luke 2:14 the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” In other words, this is the best day the world has ever known. Mary and Joseph probably didn’t get the full impact of the angels’ message. Joseph was more stressed than he’d ever been, and when his young wife needed him the most, the best he could do was find a smelly stable in Bethlehem. Mary had just given birth and was certainly exhausted. The labor and delivery must have been difficult. No meds. No modern child birthing techniques. Loneliness – Mary’s mom wasn’t there to support her.  The shepherds were physically and emotionally tired – they had been watching over their flocks at night. The people of the village were packed into tight quarters, exhausted from a census and all the trouble the census had caused. For everyone involved, life was hard. If their circumstances were the reason they would give glory to God in the highest, then this probably wouldn’t have been the night for a song.

Your circumstances are probably very different from any of those in Bethlehem. Maybe it’s your job that applies the daily pressure. Maybe it’s a relationship challenge that dominates your thoughts. It could be that December’s schedule is packed too tightly with things to do, things to buy, things to wrap, things to cook, things to decorate, things to eat, or things to attend. Maybe your circumstances are more painful. Maybe there is some loss, some illness, some point of grief that has taken away any desire to celebrate Christmas, or even life. Perhaps financial pressures have taken the joy right out of life. When life is difficult, or even too busy, it’s possible to miss the truth of the angels’ song that broke into the night skies over troubled Bethlehem. Regardless of your circumstances, God is worthy of your praise. He never changes even as your circumstances change constantly. God is worthy of your best song, your best love right now. Whether you can see it or not, God is always at work.

Not only is God is always at work and we should worship Him, but God is always in control so we should trust Him. Mary and Joseph were facing some big changes in their lives and probably wondered if they were on the right track. Mary’s instructions had come in a vision. Joseph’s instructions had come in a dream. As time passed after they were given their instructions, it seems that there was silence from God. How many times had Mary wondered if she heard the Lord correctly? How many times had Joseph second-guessed his decision to stay with Mary? It must have surprised Mary and Joseph when the shepherds arrived full of excitement and filled with the wonder of a miraculous message. From the shepherd’s point of view, Mary and Joseph confirmed their own encounter with the Lord. Eight days later, Mary and Joseph met Simeon at the temple. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not see death before seeing the Christ child. In the temple on Jesus’ eighth day, Simeon said, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation, Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32) “At that very moment [Anna, an 84 year old widow] came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38) Those events solidified what the Lord had told Mary and Joseph. By the time Joseph had a second dream, a few nights later, there was no hesitation in his willingness to believe, or obey. He and Mary took the child and ran toward Egypt, trusting that God was in control at that moment, just as God had been in control in the events leading up to that moment.

Trusting God is probably the greatest challenge in our lives. It is the essence of faith. The Bible is woven around this principle. Moses had to trust that God was in control, even as Pharaoh turned the people against him. Noah had to trust God even though he’d never seen rain let alone a flood. Ruth trusted as she walked toward Bethlehem with bitter Naomi. David had to trust as he waited to become king. Daniel had to trust as he was thrown into the lion’s den. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to trust as they were thrown into the fiery furnace. Jeremiah had to trust as he followed a trail of tears out of Jerusalem. When Mary and Joseph were asked to trust God in Bethlehem, they weren’t the first. They were simply two more people in a long line of God’s people who had been asked to believe that God was in control. Even if they couldn’t see the evidence of that control right at that moment. You’re in that line, too. God will ask you to trust Him, to believe that He is in control. We need to understand a fundamental principle. Not everyone can make the leap of faith that is required here. The shepherds managed to make it to the birthplace, but no one else in Bethlehem did. The old-timers in Bethlehem surely knew that one of the prophets had promised that Messiah would be born there and were probably able to quote Micah’s prophecy. But when the big moment came and went, the meaning of Christmas slipped past them just as it sometimes slips past us. Trusting God is a decision that you must make daily.

God is always at work and we should worship Him, and we know that God is always in control and we should trust Him, but we must also realize that God loves us more than we’ll ever know: this is the gift of Christmas. As we have seen in past weeks, in our culture, Christmas is all about the gifts. We spend billions on the gift exchanges every holiday season. Christmas was God’s ultimate gift. It was God’s love for us that served as the motivation of Christmas Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:16? It was a personal encounter with Christmas. Meeting Jesus impacts everyone in a different way.  Some accept His free gift and some don’t. The shepherds heard the song of Christmas and returned to their fields with a different outlook on life. The magi were impacted with the child they found, literally changing their path home as a result. Mary and Joseph – already convinced that God had led them to Bethlehem – left there with a deeper conviction than ever that God could be trusted and that the child they carried with them was the greatest gift the world had ever known. Through the ages, millions have found the gift, realizing that the God who is so worthy of worship, the God who demands that we trust Him, is also the God who first of all gave us a gift, motivated by unspeakable love, so that we could know Him personally. God is always at work and we should worship Him, God is always in control and we should trust Him, and God loves us more than we’ll ever know and that is the real gift of Christmas.

It turns out the song of Christmas is a beautiful one if people will only hear it. Most in Bethlehem missed the song. Pain and grief and tragedy and busyness got in the way. But for those who were listening, and for those who responded, the gift the received was nothing short of life-changing. Every Christmas, the song plays again, with God’s constant invitation for us to hear, to believe, and to respond.